Can Nerve Endings in the Tongue Help Us Treat Traumatic Brain Injury?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 27 2013 12:02 PM

Can Nerve Endings in the Tongue Help Us Treat Traumatic Brain Injury?

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The PoNS device is an electrode-covered appliance users place on the tongue.

J. Ellen Crown, USAMRMC public affairs

The human tongue is an extraordinary bit of flesh. It’s alternately squishy and tense, at times delicate and others powerful. It helps us taste, talk, and tie cherry stems, all the while avoiding two interlocking rows of sharpened enamel that know only how to gnash. Now, it seems the tongue may even serve as a gateway to the human brain, providing us with the opportunity to treat serious afflictions from multiple sclerosis to combat-induced brain injuries.

The tongue is a natural candidate for electrical stimulation, thanks in part to a high density of sensory receptors and the concentration of electrolytes found in saliva. This has allowed researchers at the Tactile Communication and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to develop a pattern of electrodes that can be placed on the tongue and attached to a control box. All together, the system is called a Portable Neuromodulation Stimulator (PoNS).

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Once hooked in, patients undergo 20-30 minutes of stimulation therapy, or CN-NiNM (cranial nerve non-invasive neuromodulation), matched to a regimen of physical, occupational, and cognitive exercises specific to the ailment being treated. Each exercise corresponds with different patterns of tongue stimulation, which in turn coax the brain to form new neural pathways. These pathways remain active even after the stimulation has been removed, meaning the therapy can have lasting effects.

After treatment with CN-NiNM, patients with multiple sclerosis have been shown to have a 50 percent improvement in postural balance, 55 percent improvement in walking ability, a 30 percent reduction in fatigue, and 48 percent reduction in M.S. impact scores (a measure of physical and psychological impact of M.S. from the patient’s perspective). Extraordinary numbers by any standard, but if you really want to understand the project’s impact, read about Kim Kozelichki ditching her hobbled limp for a healthy jog.

Best of all, researchers have reason to believe CN-NiNM can not only slow functional loss, but also restore previously lost functions. It’s this promise that has the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC) interested. In collaboration with UWM and NeuroHabilitation Corporation, the Army hopes to harness this emerging technology to “restore lost physical and mental function” for both service members and civilians suffering from traumatic brain injury, stroke, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.

“We need this in the mouths of our soldiers,” said Montel Williams upon witnessing PoNS therapy. Williams helped create NeuroHabilitation Corporation after being diagnosed with M.S. in 1999. He also served in the Marine Corps and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, making him a high profile cross-section of the interested parties.

The partnership also marks an unusual intersection of funding as William’s organization is privately financed, UWM is nonprofit, and the military is government-financed. As Colonel Dallas Hack, director of USAMRMC, said in the military’s press release, “This exciting agreement leverages a unique private-public partnership. By collaborating…we maximize our resources to explore a potential real-world treatment for injured service members and civilians with a variety of health conditions.”

The next round of many, many more tests is slated to kick off later this month. Godspeed, fellas. 

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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